Thursday, June 26, 2014

Monkey Puzzles

Back in the early nineties, White Wolf productions wrote a role-playing game called "Werewolf: the Apocalypse." White Wolf were the same folks who gave us that RPG about vampires which everybody seemed to play exclusively for about four solid years, starting from '92 until around '96, when everybody, even gamers, realized that clove cigarettes and trenchcoat-wearing katana-murderers were kind of silly. I think it resulted in a TV show which aired on Fox for a bit and spun off a few movies and video games. It was part of the whole literary movement beginning with Anne Rice and ending with our current glut of sexy vampire media.

The White Wolf vampire game was D&D playing dress-up, the sort of game you discovered right when you hit college and wanted to be cool enough to talk to girls, but not so cool that you gave up on ALL of your hobbies.

This was a long time before nerd culture infiltrated society in general. These days, finding women who are into nerd stuff like D&D isn't a big deal. They're everywhere, but back then you had to drape everything in black Ray-bans, punk rock references and pseudo-improv-theater-trappings to have a chance.

But I digress. White Wolf did this game called "Werewolf: the Apocalypse."

It was fundamentally silly. You played a bunch of werewolves who fought against the evil spirits who were attempting to undermine Mother Nature, as embodied by faceless corporations and whatnot. Think Captain Planet with big furry murder-engines and you get the idea.

It took itself oh-so-seriously. It expanded on the universe laid out in the Vampire game, added metaphysics, symbolism. History going back thousands of years. Proxy wars between shadowy not-gods and their minions. On paper, it looked great. In practice, the game was more for people who liked rolling buckets of dice and mowing through paper cut-out enemies. For all its talk of metaphysics, the game was mostly about elaborate ways to eviscerate things.

I only played it twice. The first time, I ran it for a friend back in high school. He played an enormous chihuahua who got his nuts shot off trying to stop corporate flunkies from dumping toxic waste in a swamp. The second time was years later, when my roommate and I spent hours rolling up characters to guest-play in a friend's Vampire campaign only to find out that he'd planned to kill us off all along just to show how powerful his villain was to the rest of his normal group (which included his girlfriend).

If you dig past the silliness and early 90's gamer faux-machismo, there was some pretty awesome stuff in there. One of my favorites was the section of magic items you could create if you were playing one of the more mystically-inclined furry murder-engines. It had the usual selection of magic weaponry and stuff. And then it had the monkey puzzle.

The monkey puzzle was something like a Rubik's Cube or one of those blacksmith toys you occasionally see in gift shops attached to national parks. It didn't exactly occupy the normal three dimensions we know and love. For non-mystically-inclined folk it was irresistibly appealing. A non-supernaturally-inclined human would just sit and fiddle with it for days, trying to figure it out, follow the knots and twists and whorls and eventually they'd starve to death in a puddle of their own waste and empty Doritos bags.

In other words, it was kind of like Minecraft.

It was the ultimate enigma. You could whittle away at it for hours without getting anywhere, because it was the physical embodiment of a Zen koan, something that just is, without logic or sense or inherent direction. Whenever I run across something in life that's something of a paradox or results in cognitive dissonance, I think of the monkey puzzle.

I find something that's so awful or so compelling that I can't engage with it directly. I just have to realize that the solution is to just shovel it into a corner, walk away slowly until it disappears from my mental radar. The alternative is to get roped into whatever paradox I've uncovered and be entrapped by it until I realize that I've spent the better part of the week obsessing over something completely stupid, like something awful a coworker did in a meeting, or the fact that one of your friends did something extraordinarily stupid with something you loaned to them, or whatever drama is currently eating your brain.

In my case, I just have to realize that these things are like the monkey puzzle: you can't engage them on their own terms, because it's a trap. It's the event horizon of a black hole--you can't even poke at it without getting sucked in. All you can do is back off, slowly, and move on with your life. Or start smoking clove cigarettes and wearing trench-coats again, because seriously, White Wolf, man.

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